جوزيف حتي/موارنة لبنان: فقدان هوية وثقافة تجارية وإقطاعية
Lebanon’s Maronites: Mercantile Non-Identity and Feudalism Joseph Hitti/August 29/2022
In Lebanon, there are four major Maronite political clusters pretending to be parties, based on geography and opportunistic alliances with foreign countries, in addition to a smattering of smaller and insignificant parties, mostly residuals of ancient and otherwise defunct clans or parties that remain alive like ghosts of their former more significant selves. They generally are divided along regional and clannish lines but not on any serious ideological differences. The only thing common to all of them is their blind allegiance to their Maronite Patriarch who is to them what the Pope is to Roman Catholics. Still, just like the Sicilian crime families are Catholic in name only, the Maronites are Christian also in name only. Their ultra-religiosity is superficial – statues, shrines, miracles, saints…. – while daily living is a jungle of violence and intolerance. Lebanon’s Maronites are a highly productive factory of saints, and the Vatican with whom they are affiliated continues to beatify or sanctify numerous saints year after year.
Politically, they are illiberal ultra-conservative. There are no progressive, socialist, or democrat or any left-leaning Maronite party, something that makes them incompatible with the social-political trends in the West. In Lebanon, you can’t be Hindu, Bahai, Shinto, Buddhist or simply a non-believer. Yet, the Maronites think that the West likes them because they are Christian, when in fact it hates them because of their religious conservatism. The Maronites think that beach parties and alcohol make them more western than Arabs, when in fact many of them are more pagan in their daily lives as they do not practice the substance of their religion, only the superficial and ostentatious aspects of Christianity like erecting gigantic statues of Mary and saints on every hilltop. Indeed, some have inched closer to what I call Christian Daesh, as I personally experienced when I once asked a bookstore manager (educated in the West) to print me a poster about science, which he refused saying that this stuff was against God.
The Maronite Church has an enormous sway over the education of the Maronite herd, as it fights public education with its teeth. Yes, it teaches its children French, English, and Arabic, but only because these languages are useful to make money in the West and in the Arab Gulf. But it also teaches them not to believe in science, as the Maronite Patriarch once said that “science without morals” is meaningless, meaning science must be grounded in religion. The Maronite Church rejects Darwinian science, making it closer in thought to the neanderthal creationists of the American south.
Whereas the Irish became Catholic (St. Patrick, 4th century AD), and later adopted the language of their English oppressors, they managed to keep their Celtic language and traditions alive. Catholicism and Anglicization did not displace the Celtic identity and language. In contrast, in Lebanon, the Maronites who were the famed Phoenicians became Catholic (St. Maron, 4th century AD) and later adopted the Arabic language of their Muslim oppressors, yet they abandoned their Phoenician identity and their Aramaic language. I blame the Maronite Church for its mercantile money-centered objectives, always to the detriment of their community’s true identity. Why doesn’t the Maronite Church teach Aramaic in its schools? Why was the Jewish people able to resuscitate Hebrew from the dusty bible and make it a modern spoken language? Why can’t the Maronites resuscitate the Aramaic language and use it in their daily lives, instead of that bastard Lebanese language that is a hodge-podge of residual Aramaic, Arabic, French, Turkish and increasingly more English?
From the perspective of the Maronite herd in general, there is no separation between “pure” Lebanese nationalism or patriotism, and the religious identity of a Christian. You can’t be a patriot if you do not go to church on Sundays, hang multiple pictures of saints and Mary, build shrines at every bend of garbage-laden roads, and of course go kneel and kiss the hand of the Maronite Patriarch. As an example of the idiotic unfounded assumptions the Maronites have in their relationship with the West, some of the best news outlets within the Lebanese Christian community continue to support Donald Trump and the Republicans in the US. For example, Alain Dargham, the MTV television station’s US reporter interviews only extremist right-wing republican figures every evening like Mike Pompeo, John Bolton, and other numskull Lebanese American Republicans likes of Atef (Tom) Harb and Walid Phares under the umbrella of the “In Defense of Christians” organization (https://indefenseofchristians.org/)
That is why the Maronites have been in decline since the 1960s. I believe this is the greatest handicap of this last free Christian community in the East. Unless the Maronites begin to adopt more liberal attitudes when it comes to women’s rights, the freedoms of conscience, speech and opinion, gay rights, separation of Church from State, environmental protections, science and scientific literacy, all issues that are more in line with Western trends, the Maronites are doomed to end up as a tiny backward minority in a Lebanon that has been slowly and insidiously Arabicized and Islamized beginning with the Muslim Conquest of the 600s, with the interlude of the Crusaders (circa 1100 – 1300 AD), then the Mamelukes of the 1300s and 1400s, and the Ottoman Turks from the 1500s through the 1900s. Nowadays, the insidious Arabization and Islamization has continued to creep since the 1960s under the pretense of tolerance and coexistence.
The Maronite clans referred to in the introduction are:
– The Frangiyeh clan in Zghorta District with the facade of a “Marada Party”.
– The Geagea clan in Bsharreh District with the veneer of the “Lebanese Forces Party”.
– The Aoun clan in Rabiyeh (Matn District) and its subsidiary Bassil clan (Batroun District) parading themselves as the “Free Patriotic Movement”.
– The Gemayel clan in Bickfaya (Matn District) trying to remain relevant as the “Kataeb Party”.
– The smaller parties include the Chamoun clan of the Ahrar (National Liberal Party) based in Deit El-Kamar (Shouf District), the Eddeh clan of the Kitli (National Bloc) Party historically centered around the Byblos district, etc.
There are other Christian, non-Maronite, political clusters like the Skaffs of Zahle (Greek-Catholic), or the Greek Orthodox of Dhour Shweir (Upper Matn District) and the Koura District. But for the sake of this writing, I focus on the Maronites because they are authorized by custom and constitution to claim the presidential seat in Baabda.
Unlike the Shiites, for example, who are massively herded like sheep around the Amal Movement of Nabih Berri (Syrian proxy) and the Hezbollah militia of Hassan Nasrallah (Iranian proxy), the apparent political diversity within the Maronite community is in fact meaningless and certainly unhealthy because there are no ideological differences between the Maronite clans/parties. These different parties are solely based on a Mafia-Feudal-like clusters around a family in which political power is genetically transmitted vertically from father to son or laterally across siblings, or occasionally every which way by matrimonial alliances of medieval vintage.
Maronites are ultra-conservative, rural rather than urban, as those who migrated during the 20th century from the highlands to the city became “urbanized villagers”. They are obedient to the Maronite Patriarch and the Church, and the only liberalism they embrace is unrestrained economic liberalism – the Maronites being almost strictly money-driven – while rejecting social liberalism, secularism, and the separation of religion from matters of state. There are no left-wing, progressive, socialist, communist, democrat, or green political parties within the Maronite community. This silly ideological rigidity makes any evolution of the social and political outlook virtually impossible because the Maronite clans are built around a family, a boss, a name, and a region, and never around an idea or a principle.
Just as feudal lords of Middle Ages vintage used to live in a castle around which small villages cluster seeking protection from the lord in exchange for serving the lord, modern-day Maronites continue to live according to this model: A prominent family nestled in a castle on a hill overlooking a few dozen villages of peasant folks who swear allegiance to the lord, vote for him in elections, and comprise the vast majority of the lord’s political party. This of course encourages clientelism, cronyism, and Mafia-like relationships and a sense of being victims of everyone else (the other rival Maronites and of course the Muslims).
The Sunni Muslims tend to be mostly urban dwellers of the coastal cities of Sidon, Beirut, and Tripoli, clustered around a few feudal families like Hariri, Salam, Karami, Bizri, Solh etc. When the Muslim armies invaded Lebanon in the 7th century AD, the Lebanese were relatively recent Christian converts from their Phoenician creed by the Romans. The Muslims managed to convert those Christians living on the coast, but not those who sheltered in the mountain highlands and who thus kept their Christian identity. The Shiite Muslims used to follow a similar pattern with family names like As’aad, Osseiran, Husseini, etc. but with the advent of the Iranian theocracy in Iran, some of the Shiites seem to have dropped the genetic in favor the religious and power is transmitted between clergymen, although Nabih Berri (aging Amal Movement leader, based in Nabatiyeh in the south) is at least on the surface more secular than the ultra-religious Hezbollah and is likely to transfer political power to his male progeny.
Back to the Maronite community. The constant bickering and infighting over political power between otherwise identical parties creates a disunity that has plagued the community forever it seems, from Ottoman occupation times to French mandate times and into current independence. With the rising assertiveness of the Muslims who keep challenging the historically acquired rights and privileges of the Maronites, the disunity of the Maronites has become a handicap and an existential threat. They fought the 1975 War against the Sunnis (who hid behind the Sunni Palestinian refugees as their fighting force like the PLO and others), but the Maronites lost that war because of the hatred of a clueless, oil-thirsty West, but also because of disunity and incompetence. The Maronite president of the Lebanese Republic is today a castrated head of the executive, thanks to the Taef Agreement of 1989 which transferred powers from the Maronite President to the Sunni Muslim Prime Minister.
Today the threat to the existence of the Maronites comes from the Shiites whose turn it is to claim supreme rule over the country by opposing not only the Maronites but also the Sunnis. These tectonic shifts in the Lebanese political system are driving untold numbers of Christians to flee and emigrate, thus slowly eroding any semblance of Christian significance in a country the Christians built 100 years ago. In the face of Muslim unity against the divided Christians, the Christian community runs the risk of losing any role in the affairs of the country. The Christians are already in a precarious situation on account of the Taef Agreement which still grants them 50% of every post in the administration, even though they are estimated at about 30% of the population, an untenable and unsustainable posture.
The question many Maronites and Christians are asking themselves these days, given that the political parties are unable to agree on a common platform, is: Can the Maronite Patriarch ensure the survival of the Christian community? Can his moral authority impose itself over the mercantile interests of the clans and force them to unite? Why doesn’t the Patriarch exercise his moral authority by for example excommunicating those who refuse to join a united Christian front? An excommunicated Maronite can no longer become President.
Right now, the Patriarch is calling for an internationally sponsored neutrality of the country (à la Switzerland) as an indirect way to protect his herd against encroachments by the Muslims. But what if the Muslims reject neutrality? The Muslims have always been drawn to Saudi Arabia (Sunni Muslim) or to Iran (Shiite Muslim) and have a serious problem separating religious identity from national identity. The Christians – being more in tune with Western values, not only because of a tenuous religious affinity but more because the vast majority of Lebanese who fled over the past 5 decades are Christians and have incorporated some Western values during their lives in the West. While their attachment to Lebanon continues, what “good” (gender equality, non-discrimination, individual freedoms, environmental concerns, etc…) they bring back to their homeland is sadly negligible, as the latest elections brought only 12 reformers out of a total 128 MPs in Parliament. Most of what they bring back is “bad” junky Western stuff that is already stale in the West (fast food, stupid mercantilism, abrasive marketing, me-monkey-imitate-you…). In Lebanon, social norms generally are 20-30 years behind the West. What the Lebanese deem unacceptable today (e.g., women’s rights, gay rights, environment…) will become acceptable two or three decades down the line.
The Muslim and Christian communities are rapidly growing apart, and the chasm may lead to a breakup, what with the Christians remembering their semi-independent autonomy between 1840 and 1914, when the West (then France, Britain, Austria, Prussia, and Russia) forced the occupier Ottomans to withdraw from Mount Lebanon after endless pogroms and massacres. Having created Greater Lebanon and incorporated a large contingent of (formerly Syrian) Muslims, the latter have continued to reject the notion of a sovereign Lebanon, alternately preferring Arab nationalism in the 1950s and 1960s (Nasser of Egypt), Syrian nationalism during the 1960s and 1970s (Baath Party), and nowadays Islamic nationalism (Hezbollah and others). In other words, Lebanese Muslims reluctantly joined Greater Lebanon and have continued to challenge it and threaten the formula of coexistence on which it is based. The Sunnis raised hell in the 1960s and 1970s to strip the Christians of their power (using the Palestinian guerillas as their own militia to fight the Christians), and now the Shiites (1980s to date) are doing the same.
If the Maronites have any chance of survival as the last free Christian community in the East, they must align themselves with Western trends, turn politically to the left, rid themselves of their feudal lords and their clans, and become a genuine democracy centered around “individual”, and not “community”, rights. Right now, Lebanese institutions have no respect for the individual. They only respect the religious sectarian community to which that individual belongs. We are far from being a western-like democracy. We are more like a federation of 18 religious sects. The Lebanese Parliament is unicameral but is more like an upper chamber or Senate representing the religious sects, but not the people as individual human beings. Individual liberty is the pillar of Western democracies. Lebanon and its Christians have yet to understand that fact.